You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

MANGA MANIA: NON NON BA by Shigeru Mizuki

This is Japanese folklorist and manga artist Shigeru Mizuki's memoir of his 1930's childhood in the small coastal town of Sakaiminato. The small boys of the town play constantly at war, staging pitched battles with rocks and traps aimed at enemies across town. Shigeru, an artist at heart, befriends the elderly woman who lives near by and she regales him with stores of Yokai, the demon spirits, sometimes playful and sometimes dangerous, that fill the houses and surrounding countryside of Sakaiminato. When Non Non Ba's husband dies and she can no longer care for herself, she moves in with Mizuki's family. His father is a dreamer and very poor businessman, frequently fired from his low level jobs at banks and sales firms and a failure in his attempt to open the first local movie theater. Shigeru's mother, resentful of her reduced circumstances, repeats tiresomely that her family was allowed to use a last name and own a sword before her marriage to her deadbeat husband.

The creatures Non Non Ba describes in her stories are real. Shigeru feels their presences, at times he can see them, and in at least one instance he befriends a yokai, a disheveled monster who scatters adukii beans in the attic. In later life Mizuki would become famous as an creator of yokai manga, but despite the creatures pervasive presence in Non Non Ba, this novel is as much about pre WW II life in s small town as it is about folklore. The pretend wars Shigeu's friends "play" are vicious and the rules are as draconian and unreasonable as those he would later expose among the Japanese Imperial Army in his anti-war masterpiece, Onward to our Glorious Deaths,His father is a gentle but tragic character, and his mother is both comic and pathetic in her inability to let go of what she sees as her glorious past. The child's life is surrounded by tragedy. A young girl from Tokyo who is cared for by Non Non Ba dies of tuberculosis. The seemingly respectable family who moves to town in fact deals in selling young girls to distant geisha houses. 

Mizuki's interweaving of the fantastic and the everyday is seamless and convincing, and his story is gentle and moving. A twelve-mile hike to taste the first doughnuts brought to this remote area of Japan is as entertaining as a trip to an undersea cave to witness a yokai floor show.

In Mizuki's hometown Sakaiminato, sculptures of Yokai
line the road to the railway station. This is the
Wall Yokai, admittedly not one of the more
frightening variety.
This Yokai is so frightening it has cause Shigura and
Non Non Ba to speak Spanish

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Let me tell you now of a marvel that occurred while Bayan was besieging the city. It happened after King Facfur had taken to flight, that a multitude of the townsfolk were fleeing by way of a broad, deep river that flows by one side of the city. All of a sudden, while they were actually on the river, the water completely dried up, so that Bayan, on learning the news, came to this part and compelled all the fugitives to return to the city. And a fish was found lying high and dry across the river-bed -- and what a fish! For it was fully one hundred paces long, but its girth was by no means proportionate to its length. Its whole body was hairy. Many people ate of it, and many who did so died. Messer Marco, as he relates, saw the head of this fish with his own eyes in a certain temple of idols.

The Travels of Marco Polo
Edited by R. E. Latham
Penguin Edition

(The hairiest fist I could find was the Hairy Frog Fish. It is not 100 paces long, but it is very hairy, most unappetizing, and quite aggressive. It even stalks a flounder.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Black Jack is the manga series from the creator of Astro Boy that is most popular among adult readers.

I don't know what that really means. These stories of a mysterious surgeon, a young man whose hair is part white and part black and whose faces is marked by a diagonally stitched scar, are perhaps somewhat more sophisticated than some of Tezuka's other work, but there is nothing particularly adult about them. Black Jack is an unlicensed surgeon who charges outrageously high fees and insists on working alone in the operating room. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible, and he is not above a certain level of deception. In this first volume we get his back story -- he own hopelessly shattered body was saved by a remarkable surgeon. We also learn that the one true love of his life has been forced to live her life as a man since he removed her womb when she had cervical cancer. These stories were written in the 1970's, so that bit of biological determinism is completely indefensible as a sign of its times. Jack's assistant is a little girl with the mind of a young woman. She was a vestigial twin rescued from the body of an 18 year old. She is also quite irritating.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


(Part of an ongoing series on books that make excellent substitutes for the morning paper. Follow the Breakfast Books label for more suggestions.)

Editor Trinnie Dalton worked as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles from 1999 - 2003. One of her duties, as it is of all teachers, was to confiscate the notes passed among her charges. She saved these, maybe those she considered the best, maybe all of them. Eventually she turned them over not to the principal's office but to artist friends and let them have a go at transforming them into this book of drawings.

How, you might wonder, do you improve on perfection? When it comes to the contents of the notes, the artists know not to tamper with such raw beauty. Fragments or complete texts from the notes appear unaltered and offer up a mind-numbing, misspelled stew of venom and angst delivered in grammar that often suggests borderline brain dysfunction. Using this source material, the 20 or so artists and artist collectives Dalton selected took a variety of approaches. Many participants have mastered the kind of crappy drawing that apes the scratchy images adolescents scrawl onto notebook covers but that just a few years later can be reproduced only by someone with an MFA. Other have styles that come from advertising and commercial graphics. Some are baroque while others are brutally direct. Leanne Shapton places a line drawing of a face in the upper center of the page and below it quotes a simple message: If I see her on the stairs I am going to throw gum in hair. Or, I dare you to ask Steven do you ever wish you looked cute and that lots of girls liked you. Paper Rad, a collective based in Pittsburgh, PA and Providence RI, often channels Peter Max for their contributions. The ubiquitous Marcel Dzama is a contributor, and I am sure that just as I recognized maybe four or five other names, anyone who follows the contemporary art scene, especially on the West Coast, will recognize familiar styles. 

Leanne Shapton

Gay accusations are common, and particularly punchy phrases attracted more than one artist. OK cute or OK ugly receives several visual treatments, as does the ever hopeful Thank you for your quick response. Many entries are sadistically hurtful, but Dalton's compilation would make a poor excuse for an anti-bullying tract. None of the contributors appear to suffer from survivor's guilt. They relish the chance to dig into this material, whether they intend to create images that are as vicious as their sources or as poignant as many of the feelings that underly it. And none of the artist match the visual power of one note in red marker that begins 2:Victoria, goes on for fifteen increasingly illegible lines, and ends with the injunction: P.S. PLEASE W/B.

Jason Holley

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Walking up to the sinsipa tree, the king climbed it, cut the rope by which the corpse was hanging and let the body fall to the ground. What was this corpse like?

     Dark blue as a rain cloud,
     the hair on its hair standing erect,
     goggle-eyed, no trace of flesh on its frame,
     marked with the signs of a ghost,
     it was a horrid sight.

No sooner had the king climbed down than the corpse was up again hanging from a branch. Again the king climbed the tree, placed the corpse on his shoulders and set out on his journey back. The corpse was possessed by a genie and as the king walked along, the genie spoke, 'Listen, O king!' it began

     'Time passes for the intelligent
     in the enjoyment of poetry and martial sports;
     but for the foolish and ignorant,
     in sleep, mischief or vicious pursuits.
     What good is good fortune without discipline?
          What good is night without the moon?
     Without true wisdom, what good is skill without words'

"So, listen, O king, while I regale you with a tale,' said the genie.

from The Five-and-Twenty  Tales of the Genie,  by Sivadasa
Translated and with an introduction by Chandra Rajan
Penguin Edition

Thursday, July 19, 2012


And we're off!

Junji Ito's last outing involved a remote seaside village overcome by a geometric shape. That idea may not leave you shaking in your boots, but by the time Uzumaki reached its transcendent conclusion, Ito had literally put you through the wringer. The story gave new meaning to the idea of getting tangled up with your neighbors, and you shared with the protagonists the finer points of how to balance prohibitions against cannibalism with the fact that your little brother had turned into a very tasty looking snail and you were starving.

Gyo, titled in English The Death Stench Creeps opens on Okinawa. Tadishi and his really pretty awful girl friend Kaori are spending an unfun vacation on the island. There is a smell of rotten fish floating about, but no one expects the cause to be fish with legs crawling onto the shore and into the city. As for the smell? The fish are dead, it is only their tiny mechanical legs that keep them ambulatory. And actually "tiny" is not consistently correct. Great white sharks have great big legs.

Takshi and Kaori make it back to Tokyo but soon the fish are appearing on the Western beaches of the main island. And Kaori will not shut up about the smell. And she seems to blame Takishi for everything that is happening. Note to Takishi: Get a better girlfriend. 

But poor Kaori. She suffers the fate worth than death when wounds from the mechanical fishy legs prove infectious in a most disgusting way. 

Things go from bad to worse, and one thing I like about Ito's manga, at least the one's I've read, is that he wraps everything up in two or three books. This first volume ends with every possible worst case scenario coming to pass, and I can hardly wait to see how much worse things get before they get very much weirder in Volume 2.

It is not going away

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Shigeru Mizuki (b. 1922) is something of a national treasure in Japan. His innovative manga titles place him the same league as Osamu Tezuki, the artist referred to as the God of Manga. Mizuki made his name with manga involving Yokai, the sometimes playful, sometimes malevolent demons of Japanese folklore. In 1973 he published this magnificent anti-war tale. I have read several manga that are billed as "adult" in content, but this usually means the stories are more sexual or grotesquely violent than other, more mainstream offerings. Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths is the first manga I have read where the adult label applies to material that is morally complex and emotionally devastating. It deserves a place with such Japanese anti-war classics as Kon Ichikawa's film Fires on the Plain(1959). And western readers should not look on this tale of moral depravity among the Imperial Army's officer class with too much smug superiority. It is a story of soldiers forced in to a suicide mission, a mission that initially fails and therefore must be repeated because the glorious sacrifice of the soldiers has already been reported. The twisted logic and gross disregard for human life is apalling, but remember that Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) involves the execution of French soldiers for cowardice after their refusal to follow a clearly suicidal order. That setting is World War One.

Mizuki's was assigned to the battalion described in his story, and would have died had he not lost an arm in a previous fight some weeks before the final orders came through. Mizuki depicts the New Guinea setting as a combination of tropical paradise and absolute hell hole. Soldiers are starving, dying of malaria, and lining up seventy-men deep for the attention of the handful of comfort women their officers have provided them. Important work on camp construction can be delayed for days while soldiers search for the remains of a comrade almost certainly eaten by a crocodile. But the officers insist that remains must be returned for proper burial. A severely wounded soldier has his finger cut off by a shovel so the body part can be returned to his family. As his friends leave with the grisly trophy, the soldier, who is mortally wounded, is still alive and suffering.

Japan has lost the war at this point. Fire bombings of major cities has begun and Hiroshima is not far in the future. The insane logic of the suicide mission is the outcome of the rigid training of an officer class who treat their soldiers as fodder. The criminal insanity of forcing the men to return after they survive the first assault will leave readers enraged.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


In this province live huge snakes and serpents of such a size that no one could help being amazed even to hear of them. They are loathsome creatures to behold. Let me tell you just how big they are. You may take it for a fact that there are some of them ten paces in length that are as thick as a stout cask: for their girth runs to about ten palms. These are the biggest. They have two squat legs in front near the head, which have no feet but simply three claws, two smaller and one bigger, like the claws of a falcon or a lion. They have enormous heads and eyes so bulging that they are bigger than loaves. Their mouth is big enough to swallow a man at one gulp. Their teeth are huge. All in all, the monsters are of such inordinate bulk and ferocity that there is neither man nor beast but goes in fear of them. There are also smaller ones, not exceeding eight paces in length, or six or it may be five.

Let me tell you how these monsters are trapped...They are so bulky and heavy and of such great girth that when they pass though the sand on their nightly search for food and drink they scoop out a furrow that looks as though a butt  full of wine had been rolled that way. Now the hunters that set out to catch them lay traps at various places in the trails...These are made by embedding in the earth a stout wooden stake to which is fixed a sharp steel tip like a razor blade or lance head, projecting about a palm's breath beyond the stake and slanting in the direction from which the serpents approach. This is covered with sand so nothing of the stake is visible...When the snake, or rather the serpent, comes down the trail to drink, he runs full tilt into the steel , so that it pierces his chest and rips his belly right to the navel and he dies on the spot. The hunter knows that the serpent is dead by the cries of the birds, and then he ventures to approach his prey. Otherwise he dare not draw near.

From The Travels of Marco Polo
Edited by R.E. Latham
Penguin Edition

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Robert Silverberg was the only chid of a solidly middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. He was born in 1935, and his CPA father and school teacher mother both encouraged and indulged his precocious intellect. But he could, at times, be a trying child. His interest in ichthyology charmed a local fishmonger into securing for him a live eel. He kept it in the family bathtub only until his mother returned home from her daily teaching stint. Silverberg saw for himself a future in science, but then, at the age of fourteen, he discovered his first science fiction magazine at the local drugstore. These opened to him new visions of future worlds and changed his life. In writing Other Spaces Other Times he has a clear sense of his audience. 

You understand. You've had the same experience or you wouldn't be reading this book.

The book he is talking about is not Other Spaces Other Times., the book where I encountered the quote. The quote is dated 1987. and the compilation of autobiographical essays is copywright 2009. Silverberg says it is not his intention to write a formal autobiography, and he doesn't. This compilation of introductions to reprints of his work, columns he wrote for Galaxy magazine, and stray autobiographical fragments can be repetitive, but it gives an excellent and entertaining insight into how this successful and innovative science fiction author made a career as a freelance writer from the time he was 19 years old until the seventh decade of his life when he composed this anthology.

Silverberg was a self-professed writing machine for the SF magazine trade of the late 1950's. He began publishing shortly before getting his degree from Columbia University, and his partnership with the older, alcoholic Randall Garrett got him into the most lucrative magazine markets of the 1950's. With Garrety he would start a story in the morning and have Garrett finish it that afternoon. The could do a 40,000 word novel in two days. Garrett established them as contract writers whose work was guaranteed to appear in publications under either their own or a stock list of pseudonyms. As a teenager, one of Silverberg's favorite writers for Imaginative Tales was Alexander Blade, an author he did not realize until he wrote for the magazine himself a decade later was a fiction. His final story forImaginative Tales appeared under the Blade name, bringing to an end both Silverberg's involvement with such publication and coinciding with the death of the publications as well.

In 1958, the SF magazine market imploded, victim to over-saturation and the rise of paperback books. Silverberg took his first retirement from the field and started writing successful nonfiction for the young adult trade. It was Fredrick Pohl, an SF writer now editor of Galaxy magazine, who brought Silverberg back into the SF fold. From the mid 1960's until 1975. Silverberg wrote some of his best novels, but by his own account the literary ambitions of writers from this period alienated their readership. Star Warsand Tolkien influenced science fantasy dominated. It attempted to suffocate the field for the next decade. It's not surprising that old hands like Silverberg began to look elsewhere. He specialized in nonfiction on exotic topics for the YA market. When he returned to SF, it seems that he had absorbed the Star Wars/Tolkien lesson. He wrote the mammoth Majippoornovels and anthologies, creating a future world with all the accoutrements of a kind of fantasy he had previously abjured. (I confess I am offering this opinion without having actually read any of these novels, but the have what look like knights on the over and they can be 600 pages long.)

Other Spaces Other Time ends with Silverberg reminsicing about past WorldComs and other good times. This is not a high note, and ranks with the publishers packaging of the book as its least desirable traits. Non Stop Press has chosen an PLC presentation. This is a slick pictorial binding that makes the book look like a stray volume from a 1970's children's science encyclopedia. The interest here lies in what Silverberg has to offer as insights into what it meant to be a freelance SF writer for five last five decades of the 20th century.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


If I found a hole into another dimension in the utility closet of my dingy apartment building I like to think I would contact either MIT or the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. On the other hand, if I was either of the characters from Kathe Koja's The Cipher (1992), no, I would keep the discovery as the special plaything for myself and my really pretty awful girlfriend. Then all sorts of horrible and unfortunate things could happen, one of the worst being the appearance of a similar hole in the palm of my hand.

This is the set up for Kathe Koja's debut novel The Cipher, one of the three horror novels she wrote in the early 1990's before turning to YA fiction. I haven't read the YA novels, but given the content of the three horror novels I have read, she had to make a serious turn to produce YA material. But the switch could do her good, possibly trimming some of the lugubrious fat from the prose of these earlier works. The Cipher, Bad Blood (1992), and Skin (1994) are overripe with grungy, sex-drenched prose, but they work. This is horror that infests a social setting where young people are making bad decisions that push their curiosity for all things dark and weird toward grotesque and tragic consequences.

Koja needs very little of the supernatural for her horror tales. The Cipher concerns what must be a scientific phenomenon that none of the wastrel art students who are dragged into the tale see any need to investigate beyond the fact that it is way cool and weird. In Bad Blood the hero suffers a blow to the head that leaves him with frontal lobe seizures and visions of a malevolent mass of the color silver. I knew that was going to sound ridiculous when I wrote it, but this mass of silver, which any reader is going to write off as a residual hallucination left over from the accident, is really bad news. Running around the country, drunk and stoned and hanging out with strippers, is probably not the best way to deal with it. When the story moves to the derelict home of a brujo in Michigan, the tragedy could be either purely psychological or the result of occult forces. And there is other weirdness that beggars logical explanation. The hero here is an artist, as are most of Koja's characters. As he travels the northern midwest, he gets reports from his dealer back home that the paintings he left in his charge are suddenly selling, but their new owners complain that images begin to change after they get them on the wall.

Skin is Koja's best novel and the one with the fewest traditional horror trappings. Koja never states a locale for her stores, but she is from Detroit, and a rundown Motorcity, with brutal winters and sweltering summers, seems a likely choice. Everyone is an artist of some sort. I don't know anything about what the Detroit art scene might have been like in 1990, but none of her artists make anything that seems like it would be taken seriously as art. There is lots of fantasy painting and metal sculpture. But Skin brings in the world of transgressive performance that was an important presence at that time. Koja even credits Survival Research Laboratories and books published by ReSearch in her forward to this novel. Skin is a tale of young people pushing their bodies to ever greater extremes, staging illegal performances with battling machines, real blood, and moments of masochistic ecstasy. Unfortunately, people also die. Koja is not an outsider judging this scene. She chronicles her central character's slide into madness with unflinching objectivity. The young artists in The Cipher play naively with forces they do not understand and bad things happen. In Skin the artists pursue a vision they will not relinquish even if it destroys them.

Koja's horror novels are now out of print, but they did not go unnoticed when they first appeared. The Cipher was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and Skin was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Her latest novel, Under the Poppy, is a sexy story set in a 19th century Belgian brothel. Reviews are good, it has won a couple of awards, and it is being adapted for the stage.

My reviews of individual Koja novels are on Worlds Without End and Goodreads

The Cipher
Bad Brains